Posts Tagged “Canada”

CD cover artAnn Southam

Soundings for a New Piano

R. Andrew Lee, piano

Irritable Hedgehog  Music

 

Ann Southam is one of those composers I wish I would have been introduced to sooner. Soundings was the first piece of hers that I have heard and the work brings forth such a delicious dichotomy that I have scoured available sources to find more of her music and hear how it is, and simultaneously is not, an example of commonly mentioned techniques. The two words that I have heard tossed about regarding Southam’s music are “serialism” and “postminimalism.” Soundings is easily both and yet also neither. Is there a twelve-tone process at work? In a sense. The austere opening arpeggio adds new tones as a means of development and Southam admits to working with the same row for several decades. Is this post-minimal? Why not? There is a rhythmic stubbornness but it seems to come from a sense of obsession with the sonority rather than some rigorous process. This is the same opening chord (and articulation) found in Southam’s Simple Lines of Enquiry, so obsession seems to be the right word. In contrast to Simple Lines, Soundings has a more urgent aura about it and a brighter, more vivacious piano sound in the recording.

Through the twelve short movements and one central interlude, this chord is played out in mostly monophonic and spacious gestures. The serial music you are taught to hate in college doesn’t ruminate, it lectures. This music, serial in the looses sense, is languid and floating. Deceptively simple arpeggios dissipate from the beginning to the interlude, where time seems to stop completely. Post interlude, thick and chunky chords appear and provide the firmament for the final five movements. Those meaty chords try to dissolve but rebuild themselves in the 11th movement and, once they have been worked out of the composer’s system, the whole composition unwinds and vanishes.

This EP release (Soundings is around 23 minutes) is another excellent vehicle for R. Andrew Lee to showcase a subtle virtuosity and sensitive musical touch. It is also one of the best sounding pianos I’ve heard on disc in quite some time. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am close friends with David and Michelle McIntire, the Executive Producers of this album and masterminds of the Irritable Hedgehog label. You may subsequently dismiss this review as cronyism but I am positive those thoughts will evaporate once you’ve heard this disc or their An Hour for Piano recording (both available for free streaming on their website).

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Trio Fibonacci

5 x 3

Centredisques

  • Ana Sokolovic – Portrait parle
  • Paul Frehner – Quarks Tropes
  • Jean Lesage – Le projet Mozart, où l’auteur s’interroge sur la complexité du style et le métissage des genres
  • Analia Llugdar – Tricycle
  • Chris Paul Harman – Piano Trio

Julie-Anne Derome, violin; Gabriel Prynn, violoncello; Anna D’Errico, piano

Trio Fibonacci is quite a group.  I first heard them on their recording of Jonathan Harvey works a few years back and I am astounded at their ability to program and perform Old Warhorses alongside cutting-edge contemporary music.  This recent release, 5 x 3, plays to the trio’s strengths in technique and interpretation providing an end result of excellent music making.  All of the composers represented have some connection to the Montreal new music scene but beyond that, the five compositions provide unique experiences.  Ana Sokolovic’s Portrait parle, inspired by 19th century French phrenology practices, is reminiscent of the sparkling colors and shifting hazes found in Jonathan Harvey.  The trio is made of many small vignettes which are woven together in a compelling and kaleidoscopic narrative.  Paul Frehner’s Quarks Tropes is about as different as it could be: long, stoic melodic lines and dark harmonic tones in the first movement and aggressive energies in the second.  The more conservative harmonic language is still fresh and inviting as both movements traverse satisfying emotional arcs.

Le projet Mozart, où l’auteur s’interroge sur la complexité du style et le métissage des genres (The Mozart Project, where the author questions himself on the complexity of styles and mixing of genres), other than winning long title competitions, shines a wondrous magnifying lens on the music of Mozart and watches it melt and subsequently catch fire.  Jean Lesage treats the Mozart as an elusive figure, slipping in and out of recognizability with remarkable skill.  The music could, and does, go anywhere at any time.  Analia Llugdar’s Tricycle brings back the coloristic sound world of the Sokolovic trio but with an emphasis on pointalistic moments and slowly developing shapes.  Energies ebb and flow throughout the piece but the overall vibe projected is one of almost serene detachment.

The final composition on this disc is Chris Paul Harman’s Piano Trio, set in six brief movements.  This composition gives Trio Fibonacci yet another chance to shine since it contains some of the most intricate and quickly orchestrated material on the entire disc.  Trio Fibonacci is adept at sounding as a singular unit as well as three separate virtuosi but this Piano Trio gives Trio Fibonacci the presence of 9 people.  The overall rough and rugged language (pitch and rhythm) is a great contrast to the delicate works which proceeded it and its closing position on the disc is a good choice.  The silky smooth and poignant ending in movements 5 and 6 (attaca) is a surprise (which I’ve ruined for you now but it is still worth hearing).

In general, there is hardly anything left that you should want from this disc.  The excellent music, fabulous performances, and great programming have kept this disc in my regular rotation for quite some time.

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The Fool / The Death of Enkidu

Singers: Tamara Hummel (s), Sandra Graham (m/s), Darryl Edwards (t), Gary Relyea (b/bt) (The Fool)
Amanda Parsons (actor), Julie Nesrallah (m/s), Martin Houtman (t), David Pomeroy (t), Doug Macnaughton (b/bt), Alain Coulombe (b) (Death of Enkidu)
Conductors: David Currie (The Fool), Les Dala (Death of Enkidu)

Centrediscs

This is part of Cenrediscs’ ongoing recording project commemorating Canadian composer Harry Somers (1925-1999). Somers came under the influence of the contemporary avante-garde early in his studies in his native Toronto (1942) in the person of John Weinzweig, who encouraged him to study traditional harmony as well as introducing him to 12-tone serial composition (presumably in order to thoroughly learn the rules he was to break). After the war, he studied for a time under Darius Milhaud in Paris, where he was influenced by the music of Boulez and Messiaen. As Somers was to describe this period of his life: “Now in the 1950s I was out of touch with developments that were happening in composition; I had to learn my own way. And my own way was to write works that employed Baroque techniques fused with serialism and the more highly tensioned elements of 20th century music I was familiar with at the time.”

Now, what about the two 40-minute chamber operas in the present 2-CD set? Briefly, The Fool is about a court jester who refuses to have his soaring spirit circumscribed by either convention or royal decree and falls to his death when attempting to fly from the castle battlements on his own homemade wings. (Presumably, this is the plight of the poor, misunderstood creative artist in modern society). The Death of Enkidu takes its inspiration from the ancient Chaldean epic of Gilgamesh. It deals, in flashback, with the downfall of the man-beast Enkidu, who had been happily running with a pack of wolves before the tyrant Gilgamesh sent a harlot to seduce him so that he would become more pliable to his plans for conquest following his loss of innocence. The Fool and Enkidu will be seen as stylized, non-naturalistic dramas that are philosophical, even existentialist, in thrust. They seem to reflect contemporary trends in the theatre in the 1950’s that came to be known as “Theatre of the Absurd” and “Theatre of Cruelty.”

I can’t say that I enjoyed listening to either work. Whether or not you describe Somers’ writing as “scale-like material with a strong tonal pull,” it is not at all euphonious. In fact, it is hard to talk about melody or harmony at all in the context of these works (believe me, it’s nothing you’d want to hum or sing in the shower). They suffer from the common limitation of most modern attempts to write English-language opera in that they tend to rely on heightened speech patterns in place of a true vocal vocabulary. Perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that we have no real bel canto tradition such as other languages have (There are, of course, vibrant folk and popular song traditions in various English-speaking countries, but contemporary composers have generally shown little interest in them). The result is a strained, declamatory style of operatic writing that many listeners (myself included) find most unattractive. In Death of Enkidu, this style reaches an extreme in the tortured, syllabic, hiccoughing delivery of the narrator and the equally mannered vocal writing for the hero, which incorporates wolf calls into a generally aphasic mix. There is a Chorus of three soldiers, who seem oblivious to Enkidu’s dilemma as the noble savage who has “sold out” to Gilgamesh and is thus uncomfortable in either the animal world or the human. Instead, they mostly complain about the harshness of their life in a desolate foreign land and how they long to return to their own country (which corresponds to modern-day Iraq, so you know things must really be bad). This may be alienation indeed, but it isn’t either good theatre or treasurable opera.

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Simple Lines of Enquiry

Eve Egoyan, piano

Centrediscs

You have to be in an unfamiliar mindset to listen to Ann Southam’s Simple Lines of Enquiry. If you’re not, you might find yourself waiting just under an hour (58:41 to be exact) for something momentous to happen, and then leaving with the feeling that you have been cheated. As presented here with great discipline and sensitivity by pianist Eve Egoyan, who has often collaborated with Southam and gives the present work its premiere recording, the twelve movements that make up this major work for piano come across as the aural equivalent of twelve abstract paintings hanging by themselves in a gallery, generating an atmosphere of silence instead of sound, stasis instead of the activity we usually expect from a work of music.

This, of course, is minimalist, and very slow. The emphasis is on a 12-tone row, or rather a 12-interval row, as Southam would have it, with a slow, gentle, and precisely sequenced exploration of these intervals and the sonorities they create. As Southam has explained it elsewhere, the two notes in the right hand at the end of the sequence provide a kind of tonal center around which the 12-tone row works. At the same time, Southam’s music is distinctly atonal. Her silences are as eloquent as the bell-like sounds she is fond of deriving from repeated notes. In this recording you will typically hear Eve Egoyan play a cluster of 5-10 notes which seem to hang in the air, mingle their overtones, and then fade into near silence before she resumes her attack on the next cluster. Egoyan talks of Southam’s “magically suspended, weightless sound world, a place for deep listening and contemplation.”

And here we get to the crux of the matter. In Southam’s writing, the usual linear aspect of music takes on a very different meaning. Notions such as melody, rhythm and counterpoint exist, if at all, in a personal context. Tones and their overtones take on the character of the principal subject of the music. The end result is to create a deep listening experience that focuses and relaxes the mind of the listener, facilitating a contemplative state. Since these ends are so highly intimate and personal, it is difficult to imagine Simple Lines of Enquiry inspiring much enthusiasm from a concert audience, as opposed to the performer or the home listener. As contemplatives, we exist as individuals, not en masse. Depending on your own mood and your listening needs at the moment, attending to the music on this CD may leave you feeling deeply relaxed and centered. (If, however, you prefer things Canadian served up with a bit more excitement, go and watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs!)

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Scherzo: Piano Music

Darrett Zusko, piano

Centrediscs

Czech-born Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007) is represented here by approximately half his complete work for solo piano. He was a confessed traditionalist, mostly in the matter of received classical forms, which he handled freely and confidently. “Ever since I was a child,” Morawetz stated, “music has meant for me something terribly emotional, and I still believe there has to be some kind of melodic line.”

Despite that avowal, I found that the composer’s melodies, much of which I could not recall after listening to the present program by the talented young Canadian pianist Darrett Zusko, were not his most prominent feature. Of course, the piano pieces heard on this CD are mostly in fairly strict classical forms: Scherzo (1947), Ballade (1947, rev. 1984), Fantasy, Elegy and Toccata (1956), Ten Preludes (1964), and Suite for Piano (1968). I have not heard either of Morawetz’ two symphonies, nor any of his numerous concerted works, which include From the Diary of Anne Frank for soprano (or mezzo) voice and orchestra, all of which would obviously present greater opportunities for vivid emotional expression.

From what I hear on this CD, I’d have to say that Morawetz’ strengths include his restless rhythmic and harmonic pursuits, involving syncopations and chromatic chord progressions, and the relentless way he builds his climaxes. If there isn’t much superficial charm in any of these pieces, there isn’t any nonsense either. In his Ten Preludes, the three slow preludes, all Adagios, are quiet and sombre in mood, and are contasted with the notably more energetic faster preludes, all Allegros or Allegrettos of various kinds. His Ballade, despite the quasi-literary connotations of that name, is “pure” music, without any extra-musical associations. Even his Fantasy on a Hebrew Theme (1951), which pays respect to his Jewish heritage, is actually not a true fantasia but a set of variations that takes the Israeli song “Artzah Alinu” as its theme. Its moods range from quietly pensive to march-like and insistent, though curiously not stirring or exultant (This is not music to inspire the Israeli pioneers).

Darrett Zusko’s performances play up the strengths of the music heard on this disc. This is most evident in Fantasy, Elegy and Toccata, which makes the heaviest demands on the pianist’s virtuosity, particularly in the high-energy perpetual motion Toccata. Worth a hearing.

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pondlife__Ann Southam

Pond Life

Centrediscs CMCCD 14109

On Pond Life, Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico presents a double disc dose of solo music by fellow Toronto resident, composer Ann Southam. Southam takes the image of a pond scene, with its Impressionist associations, to heart. Thus, the music emphasizes delicate shadings of harmony and soft dynamics in a group of placid, slowly evolving pieces.

The harmonic language of these pieces gravitates toward pandiatonicism. But Southam’s brand of harmony eschews a thoroughly straightforward trajectory. Often, she uses artfully placed “wrong notes” to dispel familiarity, sending a well-trod progression into unfamiliar territory. Indeed, the occasional judiciously-introduced dissonance acts like a raindrop disturbing the surface of a pond, creating a restructuring ripple effect.

Occasional moments of greater rhythmic activity, such as the considerably charming pair of “Fidget Creek” pieces, are welcome respites from the prevailing stillness. Petrowska Quilico is sensitive to the delicate balance of Southam’s compositional ecosystem, playing with assured pacing and nuanced phrasing.

Pond Life is a recording that, while primarily gentle on the surface, is consistently attention-grabbing.

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